Fifty Miles Per Gallon Or Bust: 1981 VW Rabbit Diesel Vs 1989 Geo Metro

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Good morning, Autopians! Hope everyone had a good weekend. Mine was fine, except that I had to fill the gas tank on my daily-driver Corolla. Just shy of fifty bucks. Ouch. It’s no secret that when fuel prices rise, so does the demand for small, fuel-efficient cars, and drivers start considering options they hadn’t thought about in years, like the two we’re going to check out today. First, however, let’s check out last week’s final tally.

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Looks like the van has it. Must be Good-Lookin’ Sergey’s influence.

Now, when I was a kid in the late Seventies, I remember hearing my folks complain a lot about high gas prices. Their solution was to buy tiny cars that posted good fuel economy numbers, and use them for everything, even family road trips. You haven’t lived until you’ve toured the Rocky Mountains in a Fiat 128 sedan crammed full of a family of four and two weeks’ worth of luggage and souvenirs. We also had a VW Dasher with a diesel engine for several years; it was rated at 49 MPG highway, and I remember my dad trying everything he could think of to best that number and hit 50. I think he actually did it on one tank.

These days, thanks to modern engines, hybrid drivetrains, and aerodynamics, those sort of mileage figures are attainable with much roomier and nicer cars. But this is Shitbox Showdown, and we have a strict price cap. Is it possible to hit the magical 50 MPG figure and stay within budget? We’re going to look at a couple of little hatchbacks from days of yore that are both at least theoretically capable of it.

1981 Volkswagen Rabbit diesel – $1,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.6 liter diesel inline 4, 4 speed manual, FWD

Location: Bellingham, WA

Odometer reading: unknown

Runs/drives? Almost, but not quite

First, let me apologize on behalf of the seller for the terrible photos in this listing. I guess they were trying to keep the license plate number out of frame, but there are better ways to do it. If you’re really that worried about it (and I have never been able to understand why anyone should be), then throw a rag over the plate, or take two seconds in MS Paint to scribble it out, and let us see the damn car you’re trying to sell, would ya?

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But I digress. What we can see from these awful images is a fairly clean and rust-free Westmoreland-era Rabbit, complete with the square headlights that Jason dislikes so much. But it also looks refrehsingly stock; these days it seems the only way to find a cheap early water-cooled VW that hasn’t been “stanced” or otherwise ruined is to look for a diesel. The “tuners” don’t mess with them. Too slow, I guess.

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It does have this interesting bit of custom paintwork on the rear hatch, reminiscent of Evel Knievel’s outfit, which raises two questions: 1.) Why? and 2.) Why only there? I have to admit, I like it, I just… don’t get it.

(Ed Note: Wow. – JT

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Mechanically, this little Rabbit needs some help. It will run, the seller says, but the injection pump needs rebuilding, and the battery is dead. But these VW diesels are know for racking up a bazillion miles, even if it takes them a while to accumulate those miles, and the early Rabbit/Scirocco/Jettas are fun cars to chuck around, even with the slow-poke diesel motor. For only a grand, this car looks like it might be worth bringing back. And it’s already set up for biodiesel, if that’s your thing.

1989 Geo Metro – $2,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.0 liter inline 3, 5 speed manual, FWD

Location: Huntington Beach, CA

Odometer reading: 144,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yep

If you’d rather spend a little more and have something ready to drive away in, we have this first-year Geo Metro. These little three-cylinder wonders have been the butt of jokes over the years, but every time gas prices rise, it’s the Metro that has the last laugh. Prices go up, and a surprising number of them come out of the woodwork to be offered for sale. They seem to be aging more gracefully than anyone could have guessed, and were made of tougher stuff than we thought.

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This Metro, as a California car, doesn’t suffer from the rust issues that plague older cars in other parts of the country. The seller says they bought it to learn how to drive a stick, a noble use if there ever was one, and no longer needs it. I don’t know what’s under those strangely patriotic seat covers (kind of a theme today, I guess), but overall it looks like it’s in good condition. If you shampooed the carpets and took a buffer to that appliance-white paint, it would look pretty good for a 33 year old car, I bet.

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The seller says it runs well, and the Metro’s Suzuki three-cylinder has a good reputation, but it was made for a different time, when traffic was sparser, smaller, and slower. Driving a Metro in traffic these days would require flogging the almighty hell out of it to get up to speed, every time you merged onto a freeway. I don’t know how it would hold up to that. But as a cheap city runabout, it still seems like a good option.

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Shame about this cheap do-it-yourself window tinting, though. Hope you’re handy with a scraper; I don’t think it has a rear window defroster to ruin, at least.

And they they are: two ways to save money at the pump and on purchase. Which one would you pick?


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46 Responses

  1. How in the actual testicles did 42% of you vote for the metro? That car is just waiting to become some monster truck’s shoe meat. The rabbit can run on oil dig out of a Jersey diner grease trap if the apocalypse comes to fruition and real diesel is unavailable. Always the diesel rabbit.. 42% of you need to eat a fart sandwich. Sorry.

  2. 1 – Why do people think their license plate number is some sort of sensitive information when it’s in a pic online? I’ve never got that. It’s basically out there for the whole world to see all the other time. Are there serial killers scanning online ads, drooling and thinking, “HAHA! Now I’ve got them. Geo Metro guy MUST DIE!” I would worry more about companies collecting my search history, but that’s just me. Anywho, moving on…
    2 – I’m sure the Rabbit is gonna win, but don’t mistake the sturdiness, simplicity, and fuel economy of those Metros. Note: I have a soft spot for these having owned the Suzuki Swift version of one of these since ’89.

  3. That Rabbit’s got more red flags than a Chinese flag factory.
    10+ year old wrecked, frame damaged, salvage titled cars are selling for over $3k as-is where-is. Nothing that “just needs” an injector pump, no matter how old, is selling for $1000. If it was “just a pump” that was so easy to replace, it would have been, and would be being sold for 3-4 times as much.

    The Geo Metro is overpriced though. At $1750-2000, it’d be worth pulling the trigger on as a runabout. Not at $2500, no matter how much gas is. It’s not something you want on the highway. The 89’s have the worst engine by far, the 1.0 G10A 6 valve. It makes a whole 55HP at the crank on a good day.
    But only because it’s a manual – any auto over 100k, scrap value is too much. Oh, and only if it’s in perfect working order. For a shitbox, parts are insane – $170/ea for injectors, $200+ for the distributor, etc.

  4. Oh god, I had an ’83 Rabbit diesel in college. I have never drivel a slower car. I think my little brother’s Power Wheels had better acceleration. I feel certain 0-65 took the better part of a minute, and it would never attain true highway speeds. I also remember literally being blown off the interstate once by a particularly strong gust of wind. A death trap. However, get some momentum and it handled great. It would even cock a rear wheel like a real GTI!
    Kinda wish I hadn’t sold it.

    1. A white 2-door 128 with tan interior belonging to one of my dad’s work buddies was the first “foreign car” I ever rode in as a kid, maybe 4 or 5 years old (me, not necessarily the car). It was a revelation, so much easier to see out of and less carsick-inducing than the opera-windowed Detroit broughams most of the other grownups with the occasion to haul me around had.

      I’ve been a small-car fan ever since, currently averaging just over 40 mpg out of one of the last 6-speed manual Honda Fits in mostly suburban driving. *Mille grazie,* Fiat, even though I passed on the 500.

  5. I owned a 1979 VW rabbit diesel. It was a complete piece of junk. I had to wire in a manual cooling fan switch into the dash because the sensor that was supposed to turn on the cooling fan failed so often. The glow plugs failed all the time. No surprisingly due to the water temperature sensor issues, I got very good at removing the cylinder head to replace the head gasket. Random parts would loosen due to all the diesel vibrations. It did have great fuel economy. The worst mpg I saw was 38 and that was after a day of travel across the SW where I literally had the accelerator pushed to floor going from LA to Phoenix. The max speed on the flats was probably 80 mph. Go for the Metro!

  6. The Wabbit. If I’m going to drive a shitbox of a car that wasn’t able to keep up with traffic when it was new, I want one that has a little more character to it.

    Fun story- My parents had a VW Rabbit of this vintage when they first got married. It burst into flames at a tollbooth, presumably because it was such a miserly little car that it chose death over the injustice that is a toll road. I hadn’t even been born yet, so that car tried to kill me like my mom is Sarah Conner. You can probably guess how many Vee Dubs my parents have owned since then.

  7. I can tell you from experience, that Suzuki 3 cylinder will take pretty much all the abuse you can give it if you keep the oil fresh. During my pizza driving years, I had two coworkers drive them, and thrash them hard.

    With a stick, they’re a lot of fun. With an automatic, it’s hard not to laugh at how much of the time you have the gas pedal floored, so even that is kind of fun.

    Anywhere but California, the rust will get it long before the engine dies. And in California, even that is an epic race in slow motion that we don’t know the outcome of.

    These things are super-light, and not sturdy at all. Any significant fender-bender is likely a fatal event for the car, and very possibly the driver, too. I always thought they were unreasonably dangerous when they were new, and I definitely don’t recommend one now in the era of much heavier vehicles.

    I’d still take the Metro over the VW because I know the Geo will run.

    1. Yeah, the 1.0’s were ridiculously tolerant of all kinds of abuse. But they had to be taken all the way to the red line just to out-accelerate that dog walker. The automatic was about as sturdy as a soggy pizza box. Any Geo that came in with a slushbox and transmission problems was instantly condemned for scrap – cost of replacement was multiples of the car’s value. That’s true of damn near every part on them too. They are ‘overnight from Japan’ levels of ridiculous. A Dodge Neon coilpack is about $30 – a distributor for this thing will set you back over $225!

      Can also confirm that most of them got condemned due to subframe or unibody rot, regardless of miles. 20k or 250k. I’m positive they were not galvanized or rust-proofed. Only ‘small car’ I’ve ever seen where putting it on a lift could easily split it like a rotted out pickup truck. Basically any collision was guaranteed to total a Metro due to unibody damage, and it wasn’t worth frame pulling.

      This thing is the very definition of ‘disposable.’ Because the only thing that doesn’t cost more than the car is worth is, uh… changing the oil and air filter.

    2. I owned a 4cyl Swift version of this platform (more go, not more weight). I can confirm these are surprisingly indestructible. Mine was built in Japan and allegedly of better steel. In ten years of ownership here in the land of salt and snow, I only saw negligible rust on the mechanical and none on the body. I swear if that car has even gone to the crusher yet, it probably broke the crusher.

      I think the Rabbit was a classic design that I would love to fix up an example of, but not the tacky Westmorland version with all the pasted on Buick decor. Besides, the SuzuM has a nice clean egg shape that’s classic too.

      Metro for me.

  8. Before those nasty safety rules made cars safer, heavier and less polluting, it wasn’t uncommon for lil shitboxes to get over 50mpg on the highway. My 85 Sentra got 50+ all the time on the highway. It used gas so sparingly, I would forget to check the fuel gauge.

  9. Scrape up another grand and get a Cruze Eco. They’ll get high 40’s driven rationally on the highway. And unlike either one of these two tin cans, it’s not a deathtrap in a crash.

    Although if it was one of these two or severe disfigurement, the rascally Rabbit.

  10. my 97 4 cylinder metro is still going. not quite 50mpg because it is an auto, but still pretty good.
    safer than a motorcycle and can hit 60mph fine.
    just needs a little more love for the rust issue.

    i vote geo

  11. rootwyrm nailed it this morning: $1k for the bunny is a major warning. About 20 years ago I was toying with making biodiesel and looked around for a diesel VW. Could NOT find one worth having under $1500. And my standards are pretty low. And I live in a not-flat area.
    I kinda wish I lived near enough to go and see just how bad it is

  12. My brother bought a new ’78 Golf I GTI and had all the GTI badges removed. We had fun times with all those ‘upgraded’ VW Golf C’s (read: (poor attempts at) body kit). I had several Golf I’s, though no diesel. I vote for the Rabbit just for remembering picking up a gearbox with my late buddy. It was for his ’72 Cadillac Sedan de Ville (hughe car for the Netherlands), it fitted in the back with the bench down and even my dog didn’t mind. She was a stray I took with me from Goa in India and she was whiter than white!

      1. and the timing belt change not much longer.. with an engine the size of a sewing machine, there is So.. Much.. Room under the hood. Loved my Metro, got 60mpg a couple of times.

  13. The license on the Metro expired in June 2020, so unless the owner has paid California to keep it “Inop” (unlikely) the lucky buyer will need to cover a couple years of fees to put it on the street. (Hey, maybe that’s why the Wabbit’s license plate is hidden from view?!) I think a skateboard would be a better option than either of them…

  14. I vote for the Metro. I have driven a first generation Metro several times, and it is surprisingly fun. The tires have limited grip and it is severely underpowered, so you can use every ounce of performance without breaking any traffic laws. It is a good slow car to drive (moderately) fast.

    While I like the Rabbit, the diesel is the slowest version of the Rabbit available. Therefore, the chassis can handle a lot more performance than the engine is capable of providing. This will not be a slow car that is fun to drive fast.

  15. I owned a 1984 VW Rabbit “Wolfsburg Edition” with a gasoline engine and it was the biggest
    SH*TPILE I’ve ever owned!! That damn car left me stranded on the side of the road on a regular basis! 🙁

    So just for that very reason alone, I went with the Metro because it should be more dependable. And also because Gasoline is quite a bit cheaper per gallon than Diesel these days.

  16. I went the Geo for sake of familiarity.. I had a ’96 metro 3-door hatch with the stick shift 3-cyl. power nothing and no a/c. felt like a death trap, but damn, it was fun to toss around. If you knew what you were doing (i was in college at the time and had tons of time to waste here with gas at a buck a gallon), breaking traction was child’s play. Drifts ‘n donuts were a mainstay, but you couldn’t hold them for too long. Remove the ratchet for the handbrake and replace with a manual set (so, you know, you can park the car and not worry about it rolling away) and it was the most fun you could ever have with 63hp.

  17. I had a friend whose mother had a’79 or 80 Rabbit Diesel. Yeah it was slow. With 3 people in the vehicle and loaded with camping supplies, the had to hit 70mph to get enough momentum to get up some hills. Ahh the good ole days. I was 15, so I couldn’t complain.
    Years later, my first big boy job was at a dealership where I rotated stock, cleaned the rentals and made the showroom sparkle. I had my share of Metro’s to run about. The stick was bad. The automatic was not surprisingly worse (not even a gas pedal ..just a button on the floor to step on).
    I would take that Rabbit any day.

    1. I can confirm that those old diesel VWs can climb mountains, however; we took our Dasher to the top of Independence Pass (elevation 12,095 feet) more than once. Second gear, and trundling along at 25 mph, but it made it.

  18. The VW has some character, and the Geo is just a bland POS that no one ever cared about. Personally, if it were between these and leasing a Prius, I’ll take the Prius. But, I voted for the VW because that’s the game…

  19. I’m honestly surprised the votes are as close as they are. I’ll take the Rabbit, it’s got so much more charm and you can use that $1500 you’d save from not buying the Metro into the pump rebuild, battery, and anything else it might need.

  20. I had an ’89 Sprint and a ’92 Metro 4-door (in “sport” red, no less. ha). Like others have said, you can beat the shit out of those things, at least mechanically. I delivered pizza in both of them and neither one gave up. Ended up donating them while still in running order when I’d upgraded rides. Also, even though they are so damn light, with decent tires on them they do surprisingly well in snow. Driving back from college on the highway was also a blast as it felt like you were doing the “Cannonball Run.” 85 mph in those things is intense! Wheee, indeed 🙂
    This particular Metro does have more issues than I’d like to see cosmetically, but it’s by far the better choice here.

    note to the Staff: The polls don’t show up on my chromebook using DDG browser. Maybe it’s just me?

  21. You haven’t lived until you’ve toured the Rocky Mountains in a Fiat 128 sedan crammed full of a family of four and two weeks’ worth of luggage and souvenirs

    Closest I have was emergency braking a VAZ 2101 full of my sisters, my grandmother, HER sister and a trunk full of their auction purchases. The car ahead had slowed suddenly and I found to my dismay the overloaded VAZ didn’t respond quite as well as my unladden X-1/9 back home. I somehow managed to keep control and swerved the heavy Russian tank around the car ahead. I expected to get an earful from my grandmother but instead she gave me a big hug and praised me for what a fine job I had done.

    I love Grandma’s

    FWIW I also have memories about cruising the Sierras in a 76 hp Toyota Corolla sedan sporting an intermittent but prominent engine sputter filled with weeks worth of camping gear, my dad and his room-clearing gassy dog.

    That’s how I learned slipping the dog greasy Thanksgiving turkey leftovers isn’t a good idea.

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